The new Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, has shown leaders around the world something simple, but striking: you can have more women than men in your cabinet without the country falling apart.
What is even more remarkable is that so many of the biggest jobs in the Spanish cabinet, including economy, defense, finance and education, went to women. As a member of parliament (MP) in the U.K., a country where we are yet to have a woman serve as head of the treasury or defense secretary, I applaud Mr Sanchez.
As a seasoned campaigner for gender-balanced representation in both the U.K. and Scottish Parliaments, I am delighted with this news—as I was also in 2014 when Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, appointed a gender-balanced Cabinet, three years ago when Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his gender-balanced top team (“because it’s 2015”) and last year when President Emmanuel Macron of France did the same.
We need more leaders to follow their example. It will show to the rest that women can fit comfortably into any environment, that all the “good” women haven’t been “snapped up,” that women can handle the pressure. (These were just some of the pathetic excuses given by FTSE 350 businesses to a government-backed review to explain why they didn’t have more women on their boards).
But, part of me also wishes that we lived in a world where appointing as many or more women to a government was the norm, not the news. The sad truth is that it simply isn’t.
Let’s take the U.K. as an example. It wasn’t until 2017 that the total number of women MPs ever elected to the House of Commons finally overtook the number of men currently serving as MPs. In local government, just a third of councillors in England are women, with even fewer in Wales (28%) and Scotland (24%). In the U.S., Donald Trump’s current cabinet women hold six of the 23 positions.
So what’s stopping there being more women at the top? The most commonly cited barriers are known as the four Cs: cash, caring, confidence and culture. I like to add a fifth—the closed club.
Politics is pricey. A decade ago, estimates put the cost of a winning candidacy, including lost earnings, at over £40,000. This affects men as well as women, but when men earn 19% more than women on average in the U.K., the financial barrier to politics is even higher for women.
There is also the question of family commitments, and balancing care with the demands of politics. Across society, the lion’s share of caring responsibility—whether for children or elderly relatives—still falls on women. The pattern among colleagues in my party is that women were typically either elected young, like myself, with no children, or when their children were teenagers or had left home. This was not the case for men, many of whom were first elected when their children were very young.
In the current political system, in the U.K. and U.S., you have to put your head above the parapet and be prepared to make your point forcefully. You need the confidence to say “I’m the best person for this.” But we often tell women and girls it is not OK to blow their own trumpet in that way. As a society we still tell girls how to be feminine and ladylike. But these traits do not help you get to the top jobs in the current environment.
Male-dominated workplaces, including the top levels of politics in much of the Western world, makes women feel uncomfortable in other ways too. This is something the #MeToo movement highlighted, including in the U.K. parliament and among lawmakers in the U.S. While my party was in government, one ministerial colleague told me she would always ensure she was seated on the opposite side of the table when having a meeting with a particularly tactile minister.
Much of political decision-making concentrates power in the hands of those already inside the circle, who tend to be men. Excluding women may not be the intention, but when they are not invited into the room where decisions are made, you can see how it happens. That is why it is so important that men who have the opportunity to open these doors to more women take it.
Even in places where female representation is more balanced, there are still parts of power closed to women. One example I heard was from Finland, where the current cabinet is 41% women (in 2015 the split stood at 62% women). Former Finnish parliamentarian Johanna Sumuvuori told me the Finnish Parliament has separate saunas for male and female MPs and staff. Johanna explained how her male colleagues on the Finance Committee would joke that they’d already made all the decisions in the men’s sauna before they arrived to the meeting, dubbed the “Sauna Committee.”
Getting more women into positions of power will change this, and make governments more representative of the populations they serve. But if, like me, you want us to move faster toward gender-balanced governments and parliaments, here are three simple things you can do.
First, count! Notice the number of men and women standing as candidates, becoming elected representatives, speaking at events, the split of journalist bylines in newspapers—and challenge parties, organizers or media outlets when they are not representative.
Second, talent-spot our next women politicians. There are campaigns across the globe to help more women get into politics. In the U.K., there’s the #AskHerToStand campaign, and in the U.S. there’s She Should Run; both offer advice to potential candidates and how you can encourage women you know—friends, family and colleagues—to consider standing for election.
And third, write to or go to see your elected representative. Ask them what they are doing to make politics more representative. When politicians get even just a dozen letters about an issue, trust me, they notice.
We certainly need more politicians like Sanchez leading by example. But unless we see more systemic change, I worry that in a decade’s time we’ll still have news reports on the gender makeup of a new government.